January 26, 2022 // Diocese

Catholic Charities volunteers provide welcome to Afghan refugees in Fort Wayne

They gave of their time for different reasons. Their work transformed an unused former nursing home into Catholic Charities’ new Cabrini Center, which will offer temporary housing and resettlement services to Afghan refugees starting a new life in the Fort Wayne area.

“Volunteers were instrumental in every piece of getting this open,” said Nicole Kurut, mission advancement manager for the Catholic Charities office serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The social service ministry welcomed back those volunteers Jan. 20 for a thank-you luncheon at the Cabrini Center. The event included a blessing of the building by Father Mark Gurtner, vicar general of the diocese, a lunch of Afghan food and tours of the finished facility. Volunteers also had a chance to meet a few Afghan families staying there, the first of whom arrived in mid-January.

Photos by Kevin Kilbane
Dan Florin, interim CEO of the Catholic Charities office serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, speaks Jan. 20 during a thank-you luncheon for volunteers at the social service ministry’s new Cabrini Center in Fort Wayne. Volunteers were vital in Catholic Charities’ efforts to open the center, which will provide services to Afghan refugees being resettled in the Fort Wayne area.

Catholic Charities named the center after St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants and first American citizen to be named a saint. Born in Italy, Mother Cabrini came to the U.S. in the late 1800s to minister to the thousands of Italian immigrants who had arrived in America before her. She and the religious order she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, aided those in need by opening schools, orphanages and hospitals.

The sisters’ mission is to bring Christ’s love to the world, which fits well with the work Catholic Charities will do at Cabrini Center, Dan Florin, local Catholic Charities interim chief executive officer, said during brief remarks at the luncheon.

The need for a space like the Cabrini Center sprang up in late August as U.S. troops started their final withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Afghan military and government collapsed before U.S. personnel could exit, leaving the country under the control of the Taliban. A U.S. airlift carried more than 100,000 Afghan refugees out of the country before troops left.

With help of many volunteers, Catholic Charities converted an unused building owned by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend into the Cabrini Center, a hub for providing services to Afghan refugees being resettled in the Fort Wayne area.

Most of those refugees were taken to one of several military bases in the U.S., including Camp Atterbury, an Indiana Army National Guard base located just south of Indianapolis. About 40,000 Afghan refugees remain at military bases overseas, Kurut said. Those still overseas are scheduled for future resettlement in America.

At the time Afghan refugees began arriving in America, Fort Wayne had little housing available, Kurut said. So Catholic Charities looked for other ways to accommodate some of the new arrivals. 

The diocese already owned the building that now is the Cabrini Center. The original portion had been constructed in 1958 as a convent for religious sisters, Florin said. It later became a nursing home but had basically sat unused for a year or more when Catholic Charities took possession of it in October, Kurut said.

Volunteers from Allen County, the nearby city of Warsaw and places in Ohio swarmed in to clean up the interior and remove items left from its previous use, Kurut said. They unboxed and sorted donations of clothing, kitchen items, bed linens and other things the families will need to set up their own households. They set up rooms for use by Afghan families, who can stay there 30 to 60 days while Catholic Charities helps them find housing of their own.

Eleven members of Knights of Columbus Council 451 at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Fort Wayne volunteered at least 200 hours of time picking up donated household goods at owners’ homes and delivering them to the Cabrini Center, said Dennis Redding, the council’s Grand Knight. 

Redding, whose wife Jill sorted clothing donations, said the volunteering matched two key missions for Knights of Columbus members: “We are associated with the Catholic Church, and this project helped the Church. And it gave us a chance to impact people’s lives.”

Members of the Carpenter’s Sons, a ministry of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Fort Wayne, tackled the remodeling work that required more skilled labor, Kurut said. Catholic Charities hired a contractor to repair a larger room that had sustained water damage.

The Afghan resettlement project also became an interfaith effort, with congregations from other religious denominations in the Fort Wayne area holding fundraisers or organizing other activities to assist Catholic Charities, Kurut said.

“None of this would have been possible without our volunteers,” she emphasized.

Those who volunteered found the experience extremely rewarding. “I like working with all the other volunteers,” said Linda Gutoskey, a St. Charles Borromeo parishioner and member of its parish council. Gutoskey helped sort and process items that had been donated to Catholic Charities for Afghan families.

“It’s exciting,” she said of working with volunteers from different organizations and states. “Then to see the Afghans arrive with their children and the place come alive. It was fun to watch and to be a part of.”

Mark and Lisa Meadows of Sacred Heart Parish in Warsaw had been in touch with Catholic Charities about volunteer opportunities when they heard about the Cabrini Center project. They already assist with a Haitian ministry at their parish, so helping Afghan refugees resettle locally appealed to them, Lisa said. “It is a local need,” she explained.

Mark set up shelving in various rooms in the building, and he and Lisa both helped move items onto the shelves.

They also coordinated an Afghan refugee simulation event Jan. 16 at their parish. A total of 40 adults and 24 teens participated to gain a better understanding of the challenges a refugee faces in leaving one country and starting over in another.

“It gets you thinking about it in a different way,” Mark said.

As of Jan. 20, the Fort Wayne Catholic Charities office has assisted 101 Afghan refugees with resettling in the Fort Wayne area, Florin said. They currently expect to resettle a total of about 125 Afghans here.

Catholic Charities also recently opened a refugee resettlement
sub-office in South Bend, Kurut said. It will welcome 30 Afghanistan refugees to that area before moving into resettling refugees from other nations.

Helping newly arrived Afghan families poses new challenges for Catholic Charities, Kurut said. The families had to flee their own country suddenly rather than working through the process of coming to America during years in a refugee camp. Families frequently are large, consisting of several members. Many adults worked in skilled careers in their homeland, including as physicians, lawyers and other professionals. Those who choose to resume their careers in America will have to pass the required exams and licensing standards.

The Cabrini Center will be a hub for assisting Afghan refugees with building a new life here.

In addition to serving as interim housing, the center will have case managers on site to assist families with government services paperwork and various sign-ups, such as enrolling children in school, Kurut said. Families will go to the center for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and job development training. Entertainment and activity areas will allow refugees to meet and make friends with other Afghan families being resettled here. 

Local volunteers will also provide homework help to children and mentor adults as they adjust to their new community and culture, Kurut said.

With the community’s help, Catholic Charities can continue carrying out the Gospel teaching to welcome the stranger. 

Catholic Charities still has opportunities for volunteers to help Afghan families resettle in the Fort Wayne area, such as sorting donations or preparing meals for the families.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities and needs, go to ccfwsb.org and scroll down to information under the “Refugees” heading.

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